"I can do anything you can do better!"

The classic Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun includes a cute but childish exchange between a cowgirl and a cowboy who refuse to acknowledge the skill of the other in the fine art of gunslinging. The title of the piece is "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" and perfectly sums up years of sibling and playground rivalries.

Fast-forward to present date and time and the same song could be the theme for the latest clash between two mega sports stars who just can’t keep their egos in check. Masters of their games and great buddies Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan are contemplating a pay-per-view special in which they try to beat the other at their game. One round of golf, one game of hoops and may the best ultra-rich champion win. All proceeds of the pay-per-view spectacle, er, special, will of course be donated to charity.

Although I normally fiercely endorse and defend the place of sports in our society, this made me choke. Professional athletes are continually accused of caring more about their money than their game, and Woods and Jordan just took a big step to reinforce that perception. Little boys, teenage girls and grown adults have been pushing each other around playgrounds and other arenas since the dawn of time. Why is this particular competitive frenzy any different? Why couldn’t Jordan and Woods just have it out in a friendly informal match like anyone else? Why does the rest of the world have to pay to see them try to get the best of each other?

I could paint this as just one more sickening example of athletic commercialization. I could say that no matter how much money gets donated to charity, this is still not a legitimate contest. I could say this

is just one more publicity stunt undertaken by two swelled-headed jockstrap superheroes chasing after the spotlight again. However, I think that would be a mistake on my

We live in a market-based culture. Nothing happens unless there’s a need for it to happen. If Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are given to exhibitionism, showboating and arguing over million-dollar bonuses, it’s because they’re filling a public need. We, the sports fans, have driven them to be showoffs with our "oohs" and "ahhs" and screaming throngs. They don’t believe they’re superhumans: we do. We demand that they be superhumans.

Rewind to ancient Rome for a minute. Crowds in the circuses screamed for the death of gladiators or the sacrifice of prisoners to lions. They demanded that a man fight well and honourably for his life or he died. Was this just about entertainment or was it about vicarious fulfilment, living through experiences they couldn’t and didn’t want to undergo? In modern day, there may not be bloodshed, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t asked for. We still need our vicarious victories, to see and to live the physical triumph of one man over another, and we have charged our sports super-heroes with providing precisely that.

Can Jordan and Woods push each other around a playground in private? Of course not. They may have sought the spotlight, but we chased them with it, demanding that they step up and provide us with a service. When they do, they expect–and deserve–to be paid. Ergo, until such time as spectators can watch for love of the game, we have no right to ask that the athletes play for love of the game.

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